How many teens are on antidepressants?

A recent survey found that 1/3rd of teens have been prescribed anti-depressants, but this is probably a result of sampling bias.

One in three teenagers are on antidepressants according to a recent iNews article published in August 2022.

You can read the full article here: One in three teens on antidepressants as lack of mental health services puts pressure on GPs to help.

Now it may well be tough being a teenager these days, especially during the Covid-19 Pandemic, but this figure does sound alarmingly high!

And I’m not the only one who thinks so, and in fact this statistic may not even be accurate according to some deeper research and analysis by Nathan Gower on behalf of Radio 4’s More or Less show.

The figure above comes from a survey conduct in July 2022 by a charity called Stem4 which supports teenage mental health.

This was a broad ranging survey looking at teenagers mental health and well-being overall based on a ‘general national sample’ of 2007 teenagers and the question which yielded the results which lead to the headlines above was:

“Have you been prescribed antidepressants to treat depression or other mental health conditions.”

37% of 12 to 18 year old respondents reported that they had been prescribed antidepressants at some point in their life, which is where the one in three figure above comes from.

NB Stem4 was asked to add that question to their survey by Good Morning Britain and then they teamed up and had a great time discussing (uncritically of course) the findings…

Official Statistics on Antidepressant Prescriptions

The problem with above survey findings is that official statistics show VERY different proportions.

Dr Ruth Jack a Senior Fellow in the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences at the University of Nottingham who has also conducted research on the prescription rates of antidepressants to teenagers in England (rather than the whole of the U.K.).

Her methodology involved looking at hundreds of thousands of medical records from G.P.s in England up to 2017, and her findings are very different to those of the survey results above.

12-18 year olds in 2017 – 2.3% were ever prescribed an anti-depressant.

That 2.3% should cover most prescriptions because although specialist mental health practices and hospitals can also prescribe antidepressants to teenagers, most prescriptions revert back to G.P.s

Another alternative source we can use is from NHS in England which publishes data on how many patients are prescribed antidepressants in a year. NHS England uses different age groupings but the findings are similar to Doctor Jack’s – in the low single digit percentages.

So both of the above pieces of research which are based on the official NHS statistics and Doctors’ records show much lower figures than the survey conducted by Stem 4.

There is a MASSIVE difference: 37% of 12-18 year olds from one survey compared to 2.3% according to the Doctors’ own records, that is more than 10 times the difference according to Stem4’s survey based on the self-reporting of the teenagers themselves.

Stem4’s survey reports that there are higher rates of prescription among younger teenagers compared to older teenagers. However both the NHS data and Doctor Jacks’ research show the opposite: lower rates for younger teens and then higher rates for older teens – with the prescription numbers getting significantly higher for 16 years and older.

Explaining the differences

The Survey data is from 2022 while Dr Jack’s data only goes up 2017, so it could be that the antidepressant prescription rate for teenagers has increased radically during the Pandemic, but this would mean there has been a HUGE 20 fold increase!

But this massive recent increase is unlikely the NHS data we have runs up to 2021 which suggests such that prescriptions did rise by about 10% during Covid, but not 20 times!

When interviewed by More or Less the CEO of Stem4 says that the objective of their survey was to hear the voices of young people by giving them an opportunity to express themselves and they saw no reason to hold back these findings which tell us what young people feel even if they are very different to the official statistics.

To support her survey findings she cites a a Freedom of Information request which was released in August 2021 suggested that GP prescriptions for those aged 5 to 12 had increased 40% between 2015 to 2021.

The More or Less Interviewer seemed to be trying to invite her to confess that her findings were completely invalid but she wasn’t backing down, suggesting that the rates of teen prescriptions were probably half way between her data and the official data.

However it was also clear that the data scientists from More or Less were having none of this – it simply isn’t possible that one third of teens have ever been on prescription anti-depressants, the official numbers just don’t add up.

Credible Data versus Eye Catching, Distorted Data

Dr Jack’s data and the NHS data are valid and reliable results which accurately reflect the underlying reality and give us the actual rate at which teenagers are prescribed medication, and this data can help us tackle the problems of teenage mental ill health.

Stem4’S research is an invalid data set which has produced a distorted picture of reality in order to make an eye catching headline and bring people’s attention to Stem4 and the mental health support services they offer.

Explaining Stem4’s Misleading Survey Results

The first thing to note is that Stem4’s research is probably telling us something different to the NHS data – the former is asking ‘have you ever been prescribed’ while NHS data is current prescriptions.

So if it’s a different 2.3% every year then over 7 years (12-18) we get to around 15%.

But this is still a way off the reported 35%.

Personally I think that Sample Bias probably explains the rest of the difference.

Stem4’s own report on the survey results tells us that they used a company called SurveyGoo to conduct the research, and SurveyGoo specialised in Online Surveys.

There is a chance that in the marketing of the survey it would have been more appealing to those teenagers who have had mental health problems in the past.

Say that SurveyGoo has 10K teens in its panel and the survey goes out to all of them – a higher proportion of teens who have had depression would be interested in answering it compared to those teens who hadn’t had depression.

The problem here is that we can’t go back easily and check the data as it’s not freely available for public consultation.

Biased Research…?

There is an even darker side to this. This could be a case of deliberately misleading statistics being publicised for commercial gain.

The question above was asked by Good Morning Britain which is a sensationalist Tabloid Media show which wants eyes, and this is an eye catching headline, so what do they care about a possible biased sample.

And the same goes for Stem4 – they make their money selling mental health and wellbeing packages to schools and other institutions – it is in their interests to exaggerate the extent of teen depression and especially ‘prescription abuse’ because they are offering earlier intervention strategies, for a cost of course!

SignPosting and Related Posts

This should be of interest for the research studies module.

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